Why Kids Can't Read

In all reading theories, there is a fundamental concept known as automaticity.  This means you know or can do something instantly, automatically.  Reading happens fast.  If you don't know something with automaticity, you might as well not know it at all.

So the question quickly becomes, what exactly are children supposed to learn – that is, memorize – with automaticity?  On this question hangs the fate of our school system, and perhaps our civilization.

Traditionally, children memorized 26 English letters.  Virtually the entire population can do this in a month or two, even at a young age.  At the end of the process, people can look at a large group of letters and instantly identify each one, no matter the size, color, or typeface, no matter whether it's uppercase or lowercase, no matter whether it's tilted or slightly defaced.  And humans can do this at a quite extraordinary speed (about 2 per second), with no errors and no guessing.  That's automaticity in action.

Focus on what an accomplishment this is.  Flexibility is as dazzling as speed.  Anybody who has looked at a book of typefaces knows that each letter can appear in thousands of different ways.  There are scripts and novelty faces.  I suspect that we can read letters upside-down almost as quickly as right-side-up.  All this is possible because the symbols we are trying to memorize are simple and compact, with the minimum of strokes needed to create a distinctive design.

This set of 26 symbols, instantly identified, is the basis of phonetic reading and the traditional starting point for all education.  Children learn the symbols and then the sounds that they represent.  Next, students learn to blend those sounds, and then to read (sound out) these blends.  Marva Collins said that she could teach all children, no matter their age, to read by Christmas of their first year of schooling.  A mere four months.

Conversely, in most public schools, by Christmas of their first year, most children have learned next to nothing.  What's gone wrong?  Why do we have an illiteracy crisis in our country, with more than 40 million functional illiterates?

Here we get to the great bait-and-switch of the 20th century.  The Education Establishment changed the set of items to be memorized from 26 individual letters to several thousand large, complex designs known as words.

This is a quantum jump in complexity, from 26 easy designs to thousands of elaborate designs.  The typical word has 4 or 5 letters, so let's compare the letter b with the word brick.  Brick is 10 times more complicated, at least.  Additionally, there are a thousand times more such symbols.  I leave it to a math professor, but I think the difficulty has jumped many orders of magnitude.

Starting circa 1931, this country's official reading theory stated that children could memorize the entire English language with automaticity, or at least 100,000 words of that language.  (This nonsense is comparable to saying that all children can fly.)

So if you want to understand why reading is difficult, it's because the commissars who took over the field of education changed the game.  They moved the goalposts, oh, about a mile.  They changed the very nature of the activity from something that is as basic as walking, which everyone can do, to a much more elaborate activity, much like dancing in a Broadway show, which very few can do.

That's a quick and quite accurate description of the biggest education story of the last century.  It is not the complete story.  The other major part of the story is the aiding and abetting that have kept this swindle in play.  Millions of professors, principals, administrators, and teachers have promoted and protected this destructive con.  And still do.  Imagine being an accomplice in something that makes people suffer throughout their lives.

Sight-word reading is the very paradigm of the myth of Sisyphus, where a doomed man tries to roll a rock up a hill, but it always rolls back down.  Similarly, children might learn a few hundred sight-words, but when trying to master the next few hundred, they forget the first 200.  Sisyphus probably had ulcers and clinical depression; hopeless tasks do that.  Typically, students in our elementary schools exhibit a whole range of discontents: ADHD, sleeplessness, despair, so-called dyslexia, and systemic educational failure.

Even if a school's official goal is only the 220-word Dolch list, you will still have the same sliding backward.  Furthermore, learning words visually will block the phonetic reflex and greatly reduce future progress.  Sight-word reading is monumental quackery, and vicious.

The bottom line is this: if you let your local schools teach sight-words – that is, kids must memorize words as graphic designs – you are contributing to a sophisticated kind of child abuse.

The biggest challenge we have in education is to make people take responsibility for what they are allowing.  Every local newspaper and TV station should be held accountable for what it lets its public schools get away with.  Ditto the Chamber of Commerce, religious organizations, local and Ivy League colleges, and community leaders.  Parents need help in understanding what is being done to their children; otherwise, how can they fight back? 

Instead of wasting all those billions on Common Core, Bill Gates should set up an information service to help parents be fully involved in reading instruction.  Here is the first thing parents need to know: reading starts with the alphabet, memorized with automaticity.

Bruce Deitrick Price's education site is Improve-Education.org.  His four new novels are presented on his literary site, Lit4u.com.

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